Radiation therapy patients get to ring a bell after they complete their treatments. “Patients feel a sense of accomplishment when they are done with treatments on this part of their journey,” said Leonard Geringer, Cheyenne Regional’s radiation therapy manager (not pictured). “We encourage family and friends to come and celebrate the bell-ringing day with the patient. It is a moving experience for everyone.” Here, Carmen stands by the bell with several of the Cancer Center’s radiation therapists: (from left) Nancy Chuhralya, (Carmen), Megan Walker and Millie Chavarria.
Carmen Grubbs was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer on July 6, 2017. “I remember that specific day because it was my grandmother’s birthday,” she said, “and because you never forget the day you are told you have cancer.”
Carmen’s treatment included three rounds of chemotherapy, 36 days of radiation therapy, a double mastectomy, a hysterectomy and breast reconstructive surgery at Cheyenne Regional Medical Center over a period of a year and a half. She is currently taking a daily pill, tamoxifin, and is receiving an infusion every six months to help prevent the cancer from recurring.
“I do not remember it being that difficult,” Carmen said of the many procedures and treatments she had. “However, my husband, Kent, says there were some really tough days. I think your mind allows you to forget some of the hard times that you go through during this intense journey.”
Carmen, who is naturally upbeat, was hesitant to talk about the struggles she’s faced. More than anything, Carmen said she wants our community and region to know how much she appreciates and values the treatments and support she’s received over the past two years.
Carmen’s family runs a farm and feedlot near Hereford, Colorado. “Our agricultural community is very busy and active,” she said, “but one of their biggest concerns is for everyone’s well-being. The support Kent and I received was extraordinary. Family and friends showed us love and kindness by sending cards, leaving phone messages, providing meals and praying for us. In addition, many people sent devotional scriptures, which gave me strength during this time.”
Carmen is also pleased with the support and care she received from her medical team: “The doctors were so kind. And it was a team effort all the way. It was wonderful how well the surgeons, the doctors and their staff cooperated and worked together.”
As an example, Carmen said the mastectomies and initial breast reconstruction work were done during the same surgical session to help reduce the amount of time Carmen would need to spend in surgery and also in recovery and rehabilitation. Almost a year later, the final work on the breast reconstructions and the hysterectomy were also performed during the same surgery session.
Carmen’s surgical team included Dr. Lisa Burton, a general and trauma surgeon with Consultants in Surgery; Dr. Philip Wagner, an obstetrician and gynecologist with Cheyenne Obstetrics and Gynecology; and Dr. Joseph Looby, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon with the Plastic, Reconstructive, Cosmetic & Hand Surgery clinic in Cheyenne.
Medical team became an extended family
Carmen first learned she had cancer when she was 44 years old. “You can’t imagine that you will get cancer in your forties,” she said. “Normally I don’t even catch the common cold.”
The breast cancer was detected after a routine mammogram at the Cheyenne Women’s Imaging Pavilion. An ultrasound and a biopsy confirmed the diagnosis.
Carmen’s primary care doctor, Dr. Philip Schiel, encouraged her to see Dr. Burton as soon as possible.
“As a new cancer patient, you can feel overwhelmed,” she said. “The doctors, my nurse practitioner and their teams reassured me and my family. They also helped us understand what we were facing and the kinds of treatments that would be needed.”
In addition to Dr. Burton, Dr. Looby and Dr. Wagner, Carmen’s medical team included a hematologist/oncologist, Dr. Maristela Batezini and a radiation oncologist, Dr. Subashini Furman, both with the Cheyenne Regional Cancer Center. Carmen was also cared for by Kristen Begger, a nurse practitioner with the Cancer Center, and Amber Carroll, a Cheyenne Regional physical therapist.
“Amber provided me with the knowledge and guidance I needed to build my upper body strength and increase my arm mobility,” Carmen said. “She showed me at-home exercises that will help me maintain that strength and flexibility for the rest of my life.”
Carmen also expressed gratitude to the many nurses, therapists and other medical professionals who cared for her: “This medical team is so professional, and they know how to help when you have a question or concern. They take great care to address each person’s individual needs.”
Another positive, Carmen said, was how close she felt to the nurses and therapists who cared for her: “Every person on my medical team demonstrated expertise and compassion. I felt so close to all of them. They there were like my extended family.”
Amber said that that this positive feeling is definitely mutual: “Carmen’s attitude about her cancer journey has been such an inspiration.”
“Carmen is the kind of person who makes everyone she comes in contact with feel better, even though she is the patient!” said Ellen Rossi (right), one of the registered nurses who cared for Carmen (left) during her cancer journey.
One of Carmen’s nurses, Ellen Rossi, agreed: “Carmen is the kind of person who makes everyone she comes in contact with feel better, even though she is the patient! Her beaming smile hits you first off. Then her thankfulness and positive outlook leave you with a new perspective. You walk away feeling better for the time you’ve spent with her.”
Amber said that from the caregiver perspective, Carmen was an easy patient to care for because of how proactive she was: “Any time Carmen noticed something wasn’t right, she would call immediately. I was able to remotely problem-solve changes to her treatment plan to address worsening symptoms. By the time she would come to her next physical therapy appointment, she had fixed the issue.”
‘I’ve become a new person’
Today, just over two years since she was diagnosed, Carmen is feeling “super, super, super great,” she said. “I feel so good now that it’s hard to imagine that this journey with cancer took place.”
Carmen is especially appreciative of small, daily blessings. “I will stand at the kitchen window and watch the sunrises and sunsets,” she said. “Before I had cancer, I took these sights for granted. Since my treatment, I appreciate how beautiful they are. And I enjoy the birds singing, more than I ever did. In a way, it’s like I’ve become a new person.”
Above all, Carmen wants to express her gratitude for how the journey has turned out and for all the care and support she has received.
“God helped me be at peace with such a life-changing situation,” she said. ‘My family, friends and community lifted me up in prayer and stood by Kent and me the entire time.”
“And I’ll be forever grateful to the medical team at Cheyenne Regional,” Carmen said. “The care they provided was phenomenal.”